The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) doesn't like to call attention to himself. He flies under the radar of his small town only leaving his garage apartment to go to church and work. He's not much of a conversationalist in general and talking to women--even sweet co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner)--leaves him utterly tongue-tied. Until the advent of Bianca that is. Long-limbed silken-haired and angelically selfless Bianca is also a mail-order sex doll. But to Lars she's the living breathing embodiment of his feminine ideal. After local doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) pronounces Lars delusional and advises his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) to humor him until he works through whatever issues have prompted his break from reality the whole town gets on board accepting Bianca as one of their own to help make Lars happy. Gosling--who's earned a reputation as one of the best actors of his generation in films as diverse as The Notebook and Half Nelson--continues his streak of impressive performances in Lars. Tremulous tentative and tenderhearted Gosling ensures that Lars is never ridiculous...which isn't an easy feat when you're having imaginary conversations with an inanimate latex mannequin. You can see why everyone wants to help/humor him; crushing Lars' happiness would be like swatting a scared puppy with a newspaper. But Lars isn't the only character in the movie; he's surrounded by several excellent "real girls." Clarkson is both confident and vulnerable as Dagmar offering Lars the infinite patience and understanding he needs; Mortimer is earnest and funny as Karin; and Garner is charmingly authentic (and impressively understanding) as ever-hopeful Margo. It would be all too easy for a movie like Lars and the Real Girl to fall victim to its own quirkiness. But director Craig Gillespie--in his feature-film debut--keeps things just grounded enough to be believable. Somehow you buy the fact that the townspeople would not only accept but embrace Bianca. A lot of that is thanks to the talented cast and writer Nancy Oliver's script which balances moments of silly humor and absurdity with scenes of heartfelt drama (her time as a scribe on Six Feet Under probably helped in that regard). But Gillespie deserves credit too. Like its hero Lars isn't perfect--it feels a bit long and the central concept may be just a little too off-beat for some--but it has a good heart and means well and you'll want to stick around to see how it turns out.